Farm life stories appeal to urban, rural, liberal, conservative
Early in this memoir, Brian Brett divulges that he spent his first 20 years "middle-sexed" due to an undiagnosed glandular disorder. While this facet of his formative experience was undoubtedly painful and challenging, he speaks of it as a gift.
As the book continues to unfold in the context of his most recent 18 years as an organic farmer on Salt Spring Island, his stories reflect this same inherent perspective: challenges in a life well-lived are also full of gifts.
With the voice of a poet (which he clearly is) Brett weaves the wonder, the horror, the beauty and the humour of rural life into a rich eco-scape that, despite being inspiring and educational, never drifts into sentimentality or pedanticism.
Whether he's holding a dying horse, suffering the ignorance of well-meaning but foolish farm inspection agents, or ruminating on the pasture ecology, Brett has a special talent for making simple observations of the natural world - plants, animals and people - ring true, clear as a bell. Even if you've never done any of these things, Brett speaks in a universal language, plucking notes that resonate deep inside. You know exactly what he's talking about.
He's also funny as hell. When describing this book to friends, I've tentatively suggested that they imagine if Wendell Berry was funnier, leaned more toward zen than Christianity, and had a magnetic eye for the absurd.
The comparison fits: both Brett and Berry are evocative poets attuned to nature and farming, plus both offer a scathing analysis of the failures of so-called technological progress.
In Brett's world, as in Berry's, small farming is admittedly imperfect and complex. Questions, compromise and humility abound. Of one thing though Brett remains unwaveringly certain: Industrial agriculture is broken and is taking us on the wrong trajectory. His arguments run through the enjoyable narratives of the book and are based on an academic understanding of the issues and a keen personal sense of observation and experience - a combo lacking in the bureaucrats that he unflinchingly skewers.
One of my favourite scenes from the book is when a lone egg inspector comes to Salt Spring's notorious Saturday market to shut down local egg providers who are selling illegal (i.e. not government inspected) eggs to their community. This unfortunate, unsuspecting man is met by a large and visibly pissed off group of islanders. He calls for police backup, who in turn suggest he might want to quietly leave.
In contrast to this small victory are melancholic vignettes, such as when Brett finds one of his birthing ewes beneath some cedars, a group of ravens in the process of eating the head off her lamb while it is still inside her.
Brett's family, community and personal life feature prominently. His love for wife Sharon, gratitude (and annoyance) at the undisciplined vigour of his son's tribe ("the 19 year-old-anarchists"), and a deep respect for neighbour Mike Byron who showed him the ropes as a small farmer, provide relational anchors and a human continuity throughout this book - a storytelling project that attempts to compress 18 years into a single day.
My friend Dan Jason at Salt Spring Seeds gifted me a copy of Trauma Farm when I was visiting him at his Salt Spring home. The cover and title suggested a gothic novel, which held little interest for me. But Dan assured me it was an excellent book, thrusting it into my bag of garlic and island blended culinary delights - goodies that he was generously sending me home with. On the ferry ride home, I was delighted to discover that Dan is mentioned in the book, along with many other colourful and important island characters.
Frankly, I don't need to read another reasonably presented, well argued position against industrial agriculture and for sane, appropriately scaled, decentralized, community farming. But I absolutely do need more stories of wonder, horror, beauty and absurdity from folks like Brian Brett.
I bet you do too.